by Godfrey Hodgson
Observer – 13 December 1987
Throughout 1986 not only was the BBC the target of occasional blockbusters from right-wing publicists like Paul Johnson. It was also under more systematic bombardment from less well-known but equally determined and effective opponents.
On the Left, the effective fanatic has been a stock character for decades, from Lenin to Stafford Cripps. Dr Julian Lewis is an unusually intelligent and attractive specimen of that new phenomenon of the 1980s: an effective fanatic of the Right.
He was a graduate student at St Antony's College, Oxford, in 1977 when he first attracted attention in the media by campaigning on behalf of Reg Prentice, a right-wing Labour Minister facing the loss of his seat at Newham North-East as a result of left-wing manipulations.
By the early 1980s, Lewis was running an organisation – called The Coalition for Peace Through Security – from a walk-up office in Whitehall. Financed by various right-wing private organisations in Britain and in the United States, the Coalition's function, Lewis says, was "to counter unilateralist propaganda". One way he set about this was to assemble massive dossiers on leading members of CND, purporting to show that many had been associated with the Communist Party or various Communist fronts.
By 1984, cruise and Pershing II missiles had been deployed, and the threat from CND had receded. Lewis became involved in a number of other causes, for example, supporting the revolt led by Lord Beloff in the House of Lords and Edward Leigh (Conservative MP for Gainsborough and Horncastle) on secret union ballots.
Lewis set up a political consultancy with Leigh and Tony Kerpel, a former assistant to Edward Heath, now a political adviser to the Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker. The consultancy was called Policy Research Associates, and one of its projects was called the Media Monitoring Unit. With immense labour, in November 1986, a colleague of Lewis's, Simon Clark, working in a flat in Holland Park Avenue, published his first Media Monitoring Report.
It consisted of four sections. The first was an "assessment" of 11 current affairs programme series, including the BBC's "Panorama", Granada's "World in Action", Thames's "TV Eye", Channel 4's "Diverse Reports" and "A Week in Politics". Each programme was given one of six classifications, such as "programmes which promote left-wing targets", and so on. It then proceeded to tot up the proportion of programmes in each category, and tabulated the results.
Thus, in the Media Monitoring Unit's opinion, for example, 24.3 percent of "Panorama's" output was found to exhibit "left-wing bias", as against 8.1 percent found to show "right-wing bias", with 51.4 percent "balanced". "Panorama" thus fared better at the Unit's hands than BBC2's "Open Space", said to be 59.3 percent "biased to the Left" and only 3.7 percent "balanced", with no programmes biased to the Right at all; or "World in Action", where again no trace of right-wing bias could be detected. Alas, however, if "non-political" programmes were excluded (an interesting concept, in the context of such a highly political, not to say ideological sifting), the media monitors found 94.1 percent of "Panorama's" output biased to the Left.
The report was prefaced by a foreword by Lord Chalfont, the former army officer and journalist who was a member of Harold Wilson's Labour Government but who had now moved to a right-wing position. Lord Chalfont's tone was moderate:
"The results appear to give some support to the widely-held belief that there is a serious lack of objectivity and political balance in much of television news and current affairs, both BBC and commercial. The report will, however, provide no ammunition for those who seek to condemn either the BBC or Independent Television out of hand."
If the report avoids the strident hyperbole of, for example, Paul Johnson's attacks on the BBC, it can hardly be called free from political bias of its own. It neglects the fact that many people in this country, as in other countries, are bitterly critical of the Government and of Conservative policies, and express themselves strongly to that effect. It proceeds from the assumption, for a start, that any programme that reflected or reported such points of view to the Left of the dry wing of the Conservative Party is socialist agitprop of the kind that should not be allowed on the air.
In short, while the report purported to test British television against a widely accepted standard of fairness, in practice it presented as biased those programmes and journalists who did not accept its authors' own ideological preconceptions. And in this, of course, it strangely mirrored the style of its counterparts on the Left, who have the same distaste for any opinions that do not coincide with their own.
Indeed, both the Media Monitoring Report and too many of the programmes it discussed serve as reminders of how sharply polarised in ideological terms Britain was in the middle 1980s. Part, at least, of the BBC's troubles stemmed from the fact that the relaxed editorial policies developed in an age of consensus had become inappropriate to the shrill, angry world of – to take examples more or less at random – Arthur Scargill and Ian MacGregor, or Ken Livingstone and Norman Tebbit ...